On Mindful Eating, Part I
Several years back, I found myself, on the 4th of July, in rapt wonder, staring at my television screen. It wasn’t the kaleidoscope of colors from the fireworks in the sky, or the majestic sounds of the Boston Pops that so thoroughly held my attention prisoner; but rather a group of people, continuously feeding themselves hotdog after hotdog, that so intensely held my gaze. My family and I had accidently come upon a competitive eating competition, and I couldn’t turn away. I needed to know what mythical beast was going to win this competition. How much processed meat was it possible for these people to put away? Who was going to give in first? Who was going to “Gallagher” the crowd with morsels of hotdogs and buns? How far would the blowback be? I needed to know, and nothing could drag me away. As I watched competitor after competitor bow out gracefully, I saw a common theme in the success of those left standing. The glorious human archetypes, that still were on the stage, still downing hotdogs, jumping up and down, were all consuming something sweet every so often between their chipmunk impressions. I was curious. Why on Earth would you possibly have a hankering for Skittles or Kool-Aid as you consumed over 50 hotdogs? Wouldn’t you want to save space? Wouldn’t that just add to your problems? But just as I started to pursue this thought, and turn it over and over again in my mind, a winner was announced! My family and I were now free from the seductive allure that is the Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Contest, and my thoughts faded from Skittles and Kool-aid, and focused on the more illustrious upcoming family volleyball competition.
It wasn’t until a year later that the thought about the competitive eating competition reappeared in my mind. I was listening to a podcast on nootropics, adaptogens, and herbal supplements. The topic of taste buds was brought up, and the host of the podcast had said something that immediately transported me back in time to that 4th of July. The podcast was focused on the reasoning of why we have 5 different types of taste buds, and why it was important to consume foods and herbs that coincide with these different tastes (and not just the savory and sweet that most of us usually spend our time on). The Host spoke about this philosophy of taste, how it works within the body, why it was important to have a diet based in foods with all of the five tastes; and, no lie, he used competitive eating as an example for it. For the convenience of storytelling, I’ll paraphrase what he said. Basically, he said that competitive eaters not only are battling the concept of fitting as many things into their stomachs as possible, but are battling pallet fatigue. He pointed to the fact, if we consume food that is too heavy in one of the tastes, we can fatigue from that taste and not want to consume any additional food that is that taste specific (i.e. if you eat 50 hotdogs). What he said next blew my mind. In short, he reported that you can hijack your brain, and your taste-buds, by introducing different tastes, those overruling the fatigue, and biohacking your body to not register as full. I was dumbfounded! This concept started a waterfall of thoughts related to the work I do with therapy, exercise and nutritional interventions; as well as made me think of my own sordid past with food and over-eating. But, most importantly, it challenged me to redefine my concept of what it means to eat mindfully. Ok, I get it, I know a lot of you are reading this, and title of the article notwithstanding, are thinking, “what does a hot dog eating competition have to do with mindful eating? If anything, it would seem the opposite of mindful eating.”. People shoving as many hotdogs into their mouth as possible seems as far from mindfulness as frat parties are to education. But with this new bit of information, I’d say you are wrong. You see, not only are the professional competitors in these contests practicing mindful eating, they are excelling at the practice.
To understand why this is true, its important to talk about the basics of what mindfulness is, and what mindfulness is not. Mindfulness is not just yoga, or meditation, or healthy ways to eat. It is not a fad, easy fix, or saving grace. I often ask the people that I work with, “what does mindfulness mean?”, and I get a slew of answers in reply. “It’s breathing!” “It’s paying attention to your emotions!” “It’s listening to what your teachers and parents tell you to do!” (This last one I get mostly from the children I work with!) Every time I ask this question, the answers I get are indeed aspects of mindfulness; but aren’t quite the whole answer. It seems that, although mindfulness is touted as the cure for so many things, it’s hard to really peg down what it is; not everything is mindfulness, but, everything can be done mindfully. The reality is that Mindfulness is a discipline. It is something that is not static, it is ever evolving, and needs to be practiced to fully understand it’s intricacies.
The definition of Mindfulness that I commonly use is: 1. Being present, 2. In this precise moment, 3. On purpose, 4. Without Judgment. This definition is simplistic in nature, but in practice it is definitely not easy. When it comes to the actual practice of Mindfulness it becomes a lot harder to fathom. I have had clients of mine insist that they can play video games mindfully, and I don’t dispute that this may be true; but in most cases they aren’t in fact being mindful, and moreover, they are usually practicing some kind of escapism. Getting so enthralled with the game that they are often disconnected with what is happening outside of the game when others are trying to interact with them. This is a very important thing to note. If you are not present during a task, if you are not listening to your senses, or your mind is constantly looping on focuses on the past and future, you are not practicing mindfulness.
If we go back to Coney Island, and my statement on mindful eating, you will find that what I asserted is true. These competitors are practicing the discipline of mindfulness one bite after the other. The confusion, I believe, with how this can be so, is that we often ascribe to Mindfulness this quality of Zen and health; while this is often true, Mindfulness doesn’t always take the form of meditation or regulation. It can take the form of force feeding yourself hotdogs. My point isn’t that this is the way you should practice Mindfulness, nor do I actually agree that this is a healthy endeavor at all. I used the presentation of the hot dog eating competition to challenge your perceptions of what Mindfulness is. Are these competitors present in the current moment that is taking place? Most of them are. Are they choosing to do so? Yes. Are they practicing non-judgment? You bet your ass they are. If they were constantly judging their environment, not listening to internal cues, judging themselves, or judging others, their attention would be all over the place. They wouldn’t know when they would have to trick their taste buds, they wouldn’t know when they would have to take a break and move themselves around to help facilitate the process of digestion, and you better believe that their tenacity would take a huge hit. I’m fully aware that the general concept of mindful eating is to pay attention to the present condition, listen to your body, and register when you are actually hungry or full. However, these competitors spend a long time training for this competition. They learn early on just what their physical limits are, and through practice, determination, and discipline, they slowly start to expand their limitations. What you see on the stage is not just a freak moment in time where people think they can push themselves to an exaggerated limit- although, to be sure, some enter the competition under this false pretense. No, what you are seeing is the result of disciplined training and mindfully approached grit. The point of this long winded diatribe isn’t to push the virtues of competitive eating; but, instead, to challenge the concept of how we mindfully approach activities, situations, and challenges. To pay attention to what falls under the guidelines of Mindfulness, and how perspective, discipline, and attention can take something that seems the furthest thing from Mindfulness, and make it a cornerstone of the practice.
So, how can we learn from the mindful eating practices of these Hotdog Eating Gods? How can we take their lesson on Mindful Eating, and apply it to our own practices? Spoiler alert, it’s not by eating 50 hotdogs in one sitting. My viewing of the Coney Island contest, and the connection to that podcast on pallet fatigue, got me thinking more and more about the application of Mindful Eating in everyday life. That with the massive amounts of different tastes, flavors, and processed foods out there, it can be quite easy for us to overeat without even knowing that we are doing so. How often have you eaten a meal, felt full, but kept eating because there was dessert? Do you tend to eat one food on your plate first, and then move on to the next food? Do you eat more if you approach a meal like this? It is so important, perhaps now more than ever, to be mindful when we eat. To really listen to our internal dialog as we are eating, to know our limits of being full, and actually take the time to taste our food. To pay attention to if we are eating because we are truly hungry, or if it is false hunger that is driving us to continue to eat. We can start paying attention to this by taking a page from the Hot Dog Eating Champions, bringing awareness into what we are doing, and to train our bodies to respond in the way that will help us work towards our goals.
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